Willi Boskovsky

Willi Boskovsky

Conductor • Violin

• 1909 1991


Willi Boskovsky was a major figure twice over in classical music, first as the concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from 1936 until his retirement in 1979, and for 25 years (1954-1979) as conductor of the orchestra's renowned New Year's concerts. The latter, principally devoted to the music of Johann Strauss II, made Boskovsky into a star at the podium and resulted in recordings, mostly of Strauss, but also of Mozart, Liszt, and Dvorák, among other composers.

Boskovsky entered the Vienna Academy of Music at nine as a violin student. He graduated in 1927 and pursued a career as a soloist and with his own chamber group, the Boskovsky Trio, over the next five years. In 1933, he joined the Vienna Philharmonic and became the orchestra's concertmaster in 1936. Over the next 18 years, he remained in the violin section and also organized the Vienna Octet.

In 1954, Boskovsky succeeded Clemens Krauss at the podium for the orchestra's New Year's concerts, thus beginning a quarter century of these performances, which were broadcast internationally on radio and later on television. Boskovsky's approach to the waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles that made up these programs proved immensely popular, bringing out their lyricism without sacrificing their more majestic qualities. In 1958, the violinist-turned-conductor made the first of dozens of LPs of Viennese waltz music for Decca Records. His timing was impeccable, as these were among the earliest stereo recordings of the repertory and appeared just as stereo was sweeping into homes. They became some of the biggest and steadiest sellers in Decca's classical catalog over the next two decades, even topping the classical charts in England. In the early '60s, Boskovsky's appearances in America as a guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestras were considered major musical events. He surprised audiences and critics alike by reviving a custom from Strauss' own performances, bringing his violin to the podium and using both it and his bow as batons, almost waltzing to the music as he conducted, and occasionally playing along as well.

During the 1960s, Boskovsky branched out in his recordings, most notably with a landmark nine-volume series of Mozart dances, marches, and minuets for Decca; meanwhile, for EMI, he recorded a series of Viennese operettas, including Strauss' Fledermaus and Wiener Blut, Zeller's Der Vogelhandler, Lehár's Paganini, and Suppé's Boccaccio. Peter G. Davis, writing in The New York Times in 1972, praised Boskovsky's recording of Fledermaus for its "razor-sharp precision," "lean sonorities," and "muscular thrust," remarking that "he can kick up his heels when called for and still preserve the undercurrent of warmth." Boskovsky remained active following his 1979 retirement from the Vienna Philharmonic and recorded well into the digital era with the Johann Strauss Orchestra of Vienna. His best recordings of the Viennese repertory, in orchestral music and operetta, remain highly prized and in print on CD.